Citizen scientists map 1,400 defibrillators in Philly contest

More than 300 people in an eight-week crowdsourcing contest search for automated external defibrillators in over 525 buildings across Philadelphia.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

After researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine called on the general public to find as many of Philadelphia's estimated 5,000 automated external defibrillators as possible, more than 300 "citizen scientists" stepped up and located 1,429 of them in more than 525 buildings across the city.

Researchers are planning similar contests in other regions. Penn Medicine

The eight-week crowdsourcing contest, called MyHeartMap Challenge, is part of what the researchers hope will be a national effort to catalog as many AEDs as possible and develop an interactive app of the registry so that laypeople can act quickly in the event someone nearby suffers an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest.

The researchers announced the results of the contest at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012 in L.A. this weekend.

The researchers say that because AEDs are not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulations that require tracking the devices, most of the roughly 1 million of them across the U.S. go unnoticed and, thus, unused.

"Finding AEDs during this contest was a very hard task -- many AEDs, we found, are in places people wouldn't think to look during an emergency, or were hard to obtain without special permission from building managers or security personnel," MyHeartMap Challenge director Raina Merchant, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, said back in May when two contest winners, each of whom found more than 400 AEDs, were announced. "We're so impressed with the creative ways people sought out devices and provided us with information that we'll now be able to use to ensure that these devices are in the right place to save lives."

Most of the found AEDs, at least in Philadelphia, reside in gyms (19 percent), schools (16 percent), and offices (11 percent). In a separate survey also conducted by Merchant, 88 percent of the 1,420 buildings her team canvassed in 2011 did not have any, and those that did cited liability and security as primary reasons to limit access to them. Of the AEDs her team did find, only 4 percent had been used at all.

Merchant's team says that, contrary to popular belief, AEDs are easy to use, and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute concurs. More than 95 percent of people who have sudden cardiac arrest die from it, according to the institute, with each passing minute resulting in a 10 percent reduction in survival: "Learning how to use an AED and taking a CPR course are helpful. However, if trained personnel aren't available, untrained people also can use an AED to help save someone's life."

While an interactive map and registry of the devices have the potential to help bystanders assist those suffering heart attacks, they are still up against other issues, such as whether the AED owner will allow access to the device quickly, if at all, and whether the bystander will want to risk liability to help.

The researchers say that even though the contest is over, they hope people will continue to submit new locations. They add that they are currently planning similar contests in other regions.